When a twin-engine Cessna crashed in East Palo Alto, CA last week, police rushed to the scene to gather eyewitness reports. We now know that there’s an audio recording of the tragic accident as well.
This recording is possible because East Palo Alto is one of the many cities who use the ShotSpotter gunfire recognition technology. ShotSpotter is a company on the rise. Based in Mountain View, CA, the company provides sound activated gunfire detectors to 50 cities around the world. Using sophisticated microphones, ShotSpotter’s sensors can relay the sound of a gunshot to police computers seconds after the shots are fired. In the Bay Area, their systems are also installed in San Francisco, Richmond, Redwood City and Oakland.
The company has become a leader in the field and it has received its share of praise and skepticism in the process. East Palo Alto has been using the ShotSpotter system for over two years with noticeable success. City officials happily point to a 20 % drop in firearm assaults and at least 16 arrests where responding officers captured shooters still holding their smoking guns at the scene of the crime.
Yet, there are some who wonder if ShotSpotter’s benefits are either overhyped or point to a more ominous trend. There has been concern that this kind of high tech listening system can send police on wild goose chases every time a gun is fired, distracting officers from more important evidence gathering work. There have also been questions raised about how much listening is being done as well.
On the listening concern, ShotSpotter has a simple answer to its critics. As one company official was quoted during debate in Washington, DC over whether to install the system there, “We only record things that go bang.”
This issue was brought sharply into focus last week in the aftermath of the East Palo Alto accident. KCBS Radio (San Francisco) addressed privacy concerns directly with ShotSpotter President James Beldock. According to Beldock, his company had the audio because the 40 sensors spread around the town captured “an impulsive and loud sound” as the plane went down. Beldock is quick to allay concerns about listening devices, stating that his sensors do not pick up casual street-level conversations. Yet, the sounds of people screaming on the streets of East Palo Alto can be clearly heard.
It’s not a huge leap to envision the ultimate Big Brother scenario, where neighborhoods are subjected to outdoor listening devices and, in some cases, cameras too. In the community of East Orange, NJ, police are using surveillance cameras that swivel and zoom in on cue as soon as ShotSpotter picks up gunfire. At what point do we become concerned that technology has overrun outdoor privacy?
As the plane crash shows, data that ShotSpotter can provide will hopefully be enormously helpful in finding out what went wrong. But the big ears (and eyes) of technology also raise questions about who’s listening and watching too.